- Diana Thielen
Queering the Physical Truth
Gathering all of my confidence, I put this one out:
I claim that feminism needs to consider nature again.
Yes, I believe in nature. And no, dear somatic*dance  practice, I do not talk about essentialism here.
All my thoughts grew out of my physical practice. As other somatic dancers*movers*performers, I learned how to feel, write with and move bodies. I learned how to listen to bodies stories, how to trust in them and their own intelligence. I experienced moments where bodies took over, where they had all the control of dancing, loving, screaming or fighting. When bodies become resistance warriors against understanding, reflection and categories. Therefore I believe in bodies, in their agent matter.
Saying this, I'm hearing Judith Butler answering: “Nature? You essentialist! I'm doubting that the term matter or materiality of bodies can ever be a useful thought for feminist practice!” I'm hearing the queer community, following the theory of the QueeRn Butler, screaming Iiihh and Uuuhääh to my confession.
Got confused now? Good. I got too.
Let me start from what I mark as the beginning.
I guess I always was something called a feminist, felt queer in the sense of always feeling strange - without knowing any of those words or concepts. Growing older, academia and discussions at my WG table as well as queerfeminist fights in Berlin where telling me about post-structuralist or constructionist theory and their believe systems. Formed as the contemporary canon, Judith Butler, Michel Foucault and a bunch of other (mostly white and male) philosophers shaped a whole generation in their perception of the world. They gave me my vocabulary and my agency, how to argue, how to act. It was inspired by the thought: Bodies are constructed. Matter and nature, they are materializing effects by culture, language and performative acts. Those abstract words have been liberating ideas for feminist theory*practices: If there is nothing like a inner, natural and essential truth to bodies, they can not be limited in their sex, gender, desire or in all the other power structures. Summarizing a long and complex feminist herstory in a few sentences, queerfeminism grew out of a fight against essential believes in fixed identities and categories to celebrate diversity. I value all of those nurturing ideas which empowered a whole community, including myself.
Nevertheless, I got bored.
After years of hearing the same content in basically just different expressions all over again – which, by the way, transforms the academic everybody into it's typical mode of pretending and smartass-ing because (seriously!) actually no one gets all those nicely wrapped up words (from “Construction is just a metaphor!” to “There really is no reality!”) – I got tired of constructionism. Like Diana has been describing in their post, I began to wonder where my embodied experiences have space in all this constructed matter. I was missing the body.
While focusing on language and culture as the forces of de-construction, I perceive this as a judgment of language over matter, of culture over nature. Whereas culture*language seems to have performative and transformative potential, nature itself has not. I admit: I even got afraid of talking about nature. I felt exiled in queer or academic discussions when I mentioned the-word-which-must-not-be-named. I kept silent about my experiences I gathered in dance studios. I'm only able to whisper: While binaries of gender norms or heteronormative desires are getting queered, the dichotomy of body and mind, nature and culture, the non-human and the human gets reinforced. Trying to be a bit more confident, I'm asking: Is queering only connected to gender and desires? What and who can be queer and resist identity categories? Who decides what has desire? What has agency?
Can nature be queer?
This question wasn't mine. It became mine after reading books of the philosopher and physicist Karen Barad. Her theory Agential Realism is mix of feminist and socio-constructivist theory as well as quantum physics. No space here to summarize it, better read it yourself. I'd rather like to share two thoughts from her writings which I fell in love with.
First: How to reset boundaries. Inspired by Niels Bohrs quantum physics philosophy, Barad argues, that there is no experiment where you can separate the one observing and the one being observed. I'm taking the risk of simplification now, leave out the physical details and continue with the punch line (Barad and other quantum physicists are loudly protesting in my mind!): The observed matter, mostly referred to as the object, is not a passive matter, which can be formed, analyzed, treated – or constructed. Rather, she claims that matter has its own agency and power to act. When observing and observed agent are getting into – in what she calls – intra-action, they need to refigure the accepted boundary between them; the line between subject and object, human or non-human. Lines are not wiped away – agents are not becoming one wholesome entity – but they get into a constantly questioned process of entangling.
Second: Nature already is queer. There is a image of nature which is inherently pure, of nature being straight. Barad argues that creatures of nature actually are immensely homosexual, bisexual or transgender. She is not necessarily talking about animals, not only about bacteria. She's talking about any kind of matter that doesn't even need be material, like space or time. Queer nature is a resistance warrior against fixed identities because it fucks up existing categories of scientists, biologists or basically of anyone of us. How could queer nature ever fit into human-made categories?
Let's queer our mind and imagine, only for once, that matter has agency. What potential could we get out of it then for our feminist*dancing bodies?
My bodyparts, my organs, bones, fats, my vulva, my hands, my mind they are in a constant process of intra-acting, entangling and resetting boundaries. All of them are thinking and acting agents. They (or me?) are not marching to one unity, to one holistic body – but they (or me?) question dichotomies and binary systems. Following Barad, my body boundaries need to be questioned anyway, because also space and time are queer, agent matters that intra-act with bodies. Where space*time ends and bodies begin needs to be negotiated. We could try to talk about and intra-act with body*space*time with the little glimpse, that they (or we?) are our agent partners. To web solidarity connections between any kind of queers. As a very little start. For now, this far. Let's stop here. – To refigure my own limitations of dance*writing, give me some more weeks and a new blog post here. Then I will focus on the potential of queered danced and practiced matter and let go theory more (well, at least a bit, I promise).
One last time I'm coming back to my embodied queerfeminist conflict. I gathered enough confidence to make this clear now:
Dear somatic*dance practice, there is no pure, lost nature of bodies, which needs to be captured or re-produced. Get over it. But yes, I also do not believe in passive matter, which we can treat, transform or construct as we wish without listening to what matter tells us. Dear feminism, I don't think that neither constructed essentialism nor essential constructionism helps us in the fight against binary systems. You are actually reproducing it yourself. I suggested to entangle the boundary of nature and queerness here. Let's queer our somatic practices, let's invite nature into feminism again. My feminst*dancing me is happily smiling in all my agents that I got this one out.
If you dis*agree and also have the need to speak it out, get back to me <3
Inspired by the *, which in feminist German language is used to make all genders visible, I use the * to visualize differentiated connectedness and the diversity of queer state of things
Studying the history of somatic practices it became clear to me, that they developed out of essential world views. Still today, their ideology foster the believe that there is a natural, pre-cultural body that can be restored. “It's about the physical truth” is a quote of Barbara Mahler, Co-Inventor of the Klein Technique. Mostly naturalness is not contextualized, neither while practicing nor in the writings about somatics. A very detailed study to check out: George, Doran: A Conceit of the Natural Body: The Universal-Individual in Somatic Dance Training. Online: https://escholarship.org/uc/item/2285d6h4
This conflict, often-cited as the “feminist crises”, refers to the conflict between constructed bodies and real experienced discrimination. How to fight sexism*racism*other-isms that get embodied when the body is only constructed? One of those huge, widely discussed questions. I'm not able to solve it here.
For example check out Barad, Karen: Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning or in German: Barad, Karen: Verschränkungen. Over the last 10 years, Barads theory, as well as New Materialism which Barad is often referred to, gathered some attention, also critics. I don't want to hide here that feminist writers have been skeptical with her ideas. Check out (in German): Braunmühl, Caroline: Lediglich passiv? In: Löw, Christiane/ Volk, Katharina/ Leicht, Imke (Hg.): Material Turn: Feministische Perspektiven auf Materialität und Materialsimus.